If you have children, or plan to, you’re probably familiar with the romantic images of cuddly infants, too-cute tykes, precocious preschoolers and loving grade-schoolers. But what pictures pop into your head when you think about raising teenagers? Warm and fuzzy? Not so much.
Many of us assume that our sweet grade-schooler is destined to turn into a moody and rebellious teenager. “Our expectations are formed from the time they’re born,” says Adele Faber, coauthor of How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk (HarperCollins, 2005). “‘Enjoy them now, while they’re young,’ we are told. ‘Little children, little problems; big children, big problems.’”
It’s true that raising adolescents presents some challenges. But that’s not the whole picture. If parents understand what teens are experiencing — and set aside some of their fears and stereotypes — their relationship with their emerging young adults can be joyful and rewarding, as well.
As teenagers make the transition to adulthood, they seek independence from parents and sample various identities. Adolescents also experience rapid-fire developmental and hormonal changes that can give rise to strong emotions and irrational behavior. (For more on this biochemistry, see “Surviving Teen Stress” in the September 2006 archives.) Taken together, such factors explain much of the moodiness and alienation that teenagers display. And it’s no coincidence that this evolution generates all sorts of tension at home.
But there are even subtler forces at play, says clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf, PhD, author of Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). Children of all ages feel attached to — and dependent on — their parents, Wolf explains. “Once they get to a certain age, however, it’s no longer acceptable for them to think of themselves as dependent little kids. The mere presence of a parent brings out a lot of these strong love-attachment feelings, but they’re not acceptable anymore, so it compromises their own sense of independence.”
In other words, teens still experience feelings of love and dependence — it’s just that their feelings about those feelings have become complicated by their new sense of independence.
Meanwhile, their drive for independence virtually demands that they elude parental control. Yet parents can’t simply turn them loose — without something to establish independence from, adolescents are even more at sea. Instead, Wolf urges parents to set and enforce limits while accepting that most normal teens, in their struggle for independence, will sometimes break the rules.
“The vast majority of teens are not out of control,” he explains, “but they sneak, they lie, they argue, and they obey — sort of. Parents have only partial control.” Those who expect 100 percent compliance often find themselves struggling to enforce a series of increasingly severe penalties. And those who surrender completely can wind up with adolescents who really are out of control. Parents should aim for exerting some, but not total, control — an approach that requires calm and empathy — and forgive themselves if they don’t always succeed.
It’s one thing to rationally understand the forces that govern teen behavior. It’s another thing altogether to deal with the feelings of rejection that can arise as that behavior forges a new relationship between you and your kid. “It hurts,” says Sue Blaney, a communications expert and author of Please Stop the Rollercoaster! How Parents of Teenagers Can Smooth Out the Ride (ChangeWorks, 2002). “Parents feel pushed away by their children. They’ve fallen off the pedestal.”
Yet, even while they’re pushing mom and dad out of their lives, adolescents understand that trust and communications are vital to building a strong parent-teen relationship, Blaney says. That doesn’t mean you have to schedule earnest kitchen-table discussions with your kids every week — you just need to be alert to how teenagers communicate, and considerate in your responses. “One key skill of effective parenting is how you respond to your kid’s expression of any kind of feelings,” explains Faber. “It’s in the everyday, small conversations with our kids that they decide we are either people they can turn to and trust or people they just can’t talk to.”
Take the teenager who complains that her haircut looks stupid and she hates the way she looks. You want to reassure her, tell her that there’s nothing to be so upset about, that she looks fine, Faber says. But, if you do, it will sound as if you don’t really understand how she’s feeling — that you’re discounting her misery.
So, Faber coaches parents on how to respond with empathy to their teens. “We need to make the effort to put into words what we think they’re feeling: ‘Wow, you really don’t like what that barber did to your hair! You wished he had listened to you when you told him you only wanted an inch off the bottom.’ That gives the teen the emotional support and recognition she needs.”
This approach can be difficult, so don’t expect to succeed 100 percent of the time — and, again, don’t beat yourself up when you don’t. After all, the idea that you’re always going to have happy, loving interactions with your teens is just as unrealistic as the expectation that you’re always going to be fighting with them. “Get rid of your notion of yourself as the endlessly loving, endlessly patient parent,” says Faber. Give yourself permission to make — and admit — mistakes. Maintain your sense of humor and proportion as you navigate this unfamiliar terrain. By being real and direct about your own vulnerabilities, you’ll further strengthen your relationship with your teen.
And always keep in mind that adolescence is a passage — it doesn’t last forever. With a little patience and resilience, plus a big dose of understanding and respect, we can support our teens on their journey.
Joseph Hart is a freelance writer and contributing editor at Utne Reader magazine. He has helped raise one teenager and has three more on the way.